Italy, April/May/June 2016

“The quality of wine. Chapter XVI”

Summer has begun, after a warm winter and very wet spring (since 1st April 2016 to date, there has been two and a half times the rain compared to 2015), we finally have beautiful warm weather: let’s hope the whole summer will be hot and dry, especially August and September, as it is necessary for obtaining healthy ripe grapes, essential for making a great wine, choosing the berries individually, by hand (in my experience, the berries must never be crushed).

The copious rain forced me to do considerably more work in the vineyard, also because I don’t use any machinery that might touch the vines and leaves (which I consider very harmful to grape quality). A green leaf (hence the importance of the leaf apparatus both in terms of quantity, young leaves, surface area and the intensity of the green of every leaf) receives light from the sun and, in a few seconds, carbon dioxide and water are transformed into plant tissue components, determining the scission of the carbon dioxide molecule with two general effects: oxygen is given off into the atmosphere, the carbon combines with other atoms and is transformed into tissue compounds. The quality of wine comes from these natural processes. The good winter and, partly, spring weather, gave us the chance to carry out our work really well: hoeing, choosing canes, manual desuckering (this operation done by an expert, preferably without using secateurs, is essential for the long life of the vine), the thinning of shoots and unwanted bunches. In this period we are cleaning up in the vineyard for the third time, the leaves are beautiful, the small grape bunches are proceeding well; soon, when the sun has strengthened the canes, we will tie them to the upper wire (I never trim the top because I think this operation is very harmful to grape quality). June is the most difficult month for the vineyard, not only for disease, but also for the accumulation of substances in leaves, therefore in my opinion it is the month that conditions the quality of the grapes to be vinified.

The wines in the cellar are resting well under the constant control of Professor Vincenzini and my continual tastings. I am very optimistic, both about the vineyard and the wines, which will be ready in the next few years.

I would like to take this opportunity to talk about induced fermentation again, a topic that I think is particularly important and current, also for the economic implications that samey and standardised wines have on the market. It is clear that these types of wine will decrease more and more in price in the future, and will be sold through mass retail channels, which will make agents redundant and swallow up medium-sized producers.  Induced fermentation generally resorts to the use of yeast strains (usually a strain for the fermentation process), available in the form of ready-to-use preparations or ones that need “reactivating”; these are selected and produced by multinational companies operating in all the wine-producing countries. Use of these “starter” yeasts is undoubtedly a great biotechnological innovation, but in my opinion, it has also introduced a “levelling effect” of the differences, a kind of “wipe-out action” of the unique quality of the product and I will now try to explain why.

A selected yeast is one that responds better than others to pre-established selection criteria, depending on the type of action and product you want to achieve. The list of selection criteria is continually on the rise and includes not only the absence of unwanted characteristics, but also (and today, I’d say, above all) the presence of wanted ones. The use of yeast starter cultures, by definition, must guarantee the result of the transformation, making both the progress of the fermentation process and the quality of the end product predictable. If used correctly, the starter strain gains the upper hand over the native microflora, which may remain vital (at least for a certain period of time) but has little chance of developing in a big way and competing with the inoculated strain, which is therefore destined to conclude the fermentation process on its own, imparting its own “aromatic imprint” to the wine. When inoculation of the starter is done well, modern techniques of molecular biology have been able to confirm the absolute dominance of the inoculated strain during all the stages of the fermentation process: one strain and one only! Like with beer!! We should reflect long and hard on this. It appears that the strains available on the market are numerous and are increasing in number every year: each strain is presented by the producing company as being totally able to work as described in the “technical information” (provided with the commercial preparation); there exists (or at least it is claimed) at least one strain for every possible need for the full satisfaction of the wine producer who uses them, forgetting, with this, that he has (perhaps unconsciously) forfeited the expression of the great biodiversity of yeasts present in his must and perhaps also the chance to get a “great” product, but this is the price he must pay in exchange for peace of mind (whose?) during vinification and to get guaranteed results. It is undoubtedly the fear of making a mistake that drives those in charge of vinification to use selected yeasts. Nevertheless, it is a fact that the use of starter cultures is widespread among both big and small producers (in terms of volume). However, although I can understand the aim of large industries to produce wine in predictable production times, with acceptable quality and as consistent as possible, in my opinion it is not understandable for the small and medium-sized producers, who could and should aspire to wines with more marked character and personality, less in line with that globalisation of taste that has always been the aim of large industries. Just two last comments: (a) the number of strains available on the market is actually quite small when compared to the number and types of wines produced, so it follows that (b) in many cases the strain used as a starter has no connection with the territory, the grapes and the cellar where the wine is made (to simplify, D245 and EC118, the two most widely-used strains in Tuscany for red wine vinification, were isolated respectively by the Montpellier and Champagne regions), thus kissing goodbye to typicity.

The Italian wine market is really being affected by the economic situation in our country and the increase of companies, also multinationals (Amazon, Deliveroo which is growing by 25% a week, Foodora and others) that provide meals delivered to your home (even with little notice), will take up more and more space in wine sales, which will necessarily be industrial and cheap. The most alarming news comes from a statistical study, which reports that 40% (forty!) of wine consumers in Italy are over 65 years old and that young people are drinking less and less wine and more and more aperitif-drinks as an alternative to wine.

The consequences for vinegrowers and wine producers using their own grapes will be a clear decrease in demand and a consequent decrease in price.

The only chance for them to stay on the market is, in my opinion, to produce different and clearly better wines than those that retailers can offer.